by Ashley Bales
It’s a point in the semester where my focus is so splintered between responsibilities, deadlines, grading, that directing any of that focus to my own writing seems unattainable. This is the point in the semester when I tell my students it's time to buckle down and focus. I’m at my most hypocritical, running in circles just trying to keep up with them and knowing that even if I could find a minute to sit down and think about where the hell I left my characters that I wouldn’t have the energy to take them anywhere productive. Criticism, creation, research, all hard work. Not in terms of wielding a sledgehammer, but difficult to work up to the degree of focus necessary to pull together each of these elements, to synthesize and allow them to flow from brain to fingers and thus produce something compelling, universal, personal—whatever comprises that list of values we associate with good literature. I tell my students to keep working and I give up on my own work until December, when the end of the semester is in sight.
Even though I mourn this mid-semester slump in my own productivity, I recognize the value in this splintering. I engage with a wider range of topics and people than I otherwise would. I apply my perspective to different problems and augment it with new information. When I’m able to retreat back to that indulgent space inside my head, where I’m able to write, the surroundings have changed. This is what learning gets us.
Our universities challenge students and instructors alike to continually break and reform their worldviews, worldviews that are never so self-centered as in those first teenage years away from home. Freshman come to university wrapped up in their adolescence and ultimately will graduate with their prime successes still concerned with identity construction and their own sociality. But they’ll also collect some potent drops of information that may diffuse into their deeper tissues, pull them outside of their selves and allow them to see the world through variously tinted lenses.
Marilynne Robinson, for the New York Review of Books, wrote an impassioned defense of the value of the humanities in an era where American anti-intellectualism is particularly vitriolic. She traced the success of the humanities to their origins in the 1500s, when great thinkers proclaimed their virtues in language imbued with the extravagance of humanist idealism. Support for the humanities recently has been lost not just under the pressures of anti-intellectualism, but increasingly as policy changes (in the form of decreased investment in education) have institutionalized disparities in access that reinforce exclusionary elitism. But the humanities themselves are not to blame and still possess power to unite disparate perspectives and foster exploration.
As a civilization, as a species, we are living through our own troubled adolescence. Humanity hasn't gone through enough mid-semester, mid-century, mid-millenium cycles to know what splintering and struggle can achieve. Or if we have, we haven’t learned our lessons well enough. It is during these times of pressure that were able to rebuild our brains, achieve new understanding, but if we’re unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, know we will come out of this better than before, it’s easy to lose hope. We’ve got growing pains and not enough experience to know if they’ll ever end. It is a debasing, wrenching process and it is our responsibility to make choices about who we want to be when we come through it, but I have to hope we’ll get there; as Robinson concludes: “And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”
For some explorations of your own, check out Claire Messud’s interview discussing her own exploration of adolescence in her new book Burning Girl, and Eileen Myles’ joyous and accidental discovery of beautiful writing in Stafford’s The Mountain Lion.
This week on the blog, Garrett Zecker stumbles upon an old literary idol, and new pieces from Eddie Dzialo and David Moloney.
Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.